The Use of Humor in Public Speaking

Laughter creates a positive atmosphere, and goes a long way toward relieving the tension of both a speaker and an audience. It also serves to grab and, in many cases, hold the attention of the audience.

"Humor is the great thing, the saving thing, " said Mark Twain. "The minute it crops up, all our irritation and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place."

Introducing humor into a speech is an art, and as such can be successfully employed with forethought, imagination, and good taste. You are a speaker, however, and not a comedian, but you are certainly not restricted from tapping into that great wellspring of humor, in your own way, and as your own artist. As in other areas of public speaking, the use of humor can be an acquired skill, and made better with practice.

As a speaker, knowing your audience is important, as in any other form of communication. Knowing what humor is appropriate is equally if not more important than how that humor is delivered. Your objective in your use of humor is to make your audience laugh, not cringe or throw objects within easy reach or otherwise head for the exits. It's about the laughter, not the ducking.

Consider the following ways of making skillful use of humor in your speech:

A light, casual joke at the beginning. This can become an effective tension breaker, especially when the humor is relevant. Traffic, weather, sports, delays at the airport-these can be topical and easy for the audience to empathize with and relate to.

Use self-deprecating humor when introducing yourself. This humor can be especially disarming when making oneself the butt of a joke or exposing an entertaining anecdote or foible. Use care in not overdoing this, but there can be a certain endearing quality about a speaker (or anyone else) who has the confidence and lack of pretension to share in a good laugh about oneself.

Use humorous quotations. Find and use quotes that tie to the topic of the speech. Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, William F. Buckley Jr, and the above-quoted Mark Twain are but a few of the many rich sources of humorous quotations easily found on internet searches.

Well-timed jokes or stories. These can be used in the body or ending of the speech, and again, should be appropriate and in good taste. Too, make sure the humor is funny to you. If a joke is to be told from memory, make certain your memorization is complete and well-rehearsed. Forgetting the punch line can make the speaker's podium an unusually lonely place.

Look at humor as a tool to sharpen your speech and improve the connection with your audience. As a speaker, a sense of humor is a valuable asset that, when used wisely, can set you apart.

Good luck and good speaking.